Urban Forager Dave Odd Combs Chicago’s Alleys for Dinner

EXTREME LOCAVORE: Restaurants like Blackbird, Browntrout, and Longman & Eagle employ the talents of this in-demand scavenger

Urban forager Dave Odd


How to collect edible urban plants

If you didn’t know exactly what Dave Odd was up to, one look inside his beat-up 1997 Taurus would get you wondering: What is in those coolers in the back seat? Are those berry stains on the floor? And what’s with the wildlife books? Then there’s the driving—most of it, well, odd. Zooming through a Portage Park alley, Odd scans the landscape with eagle eyes, then taps the brakes and hops out to inspect what looks like weeds near his Grace Street home. “You are doing your civic duty to the world by eating this,” says Odd, who pulls up the plants and places them in a giant Ziploc bag in a cooler. Eating this? Alley vegetation? Who’s eating this?

You are, if you’ve dined at Blackbird or Longman & Eagle. And if you’ve had Browntrout’s sublime bright green nettle raviolo with wild ferns, the nettles didn’t come from some farm in upstate Michigan; they were plucked from behind an office building in Morton Grove. All of these restaurants—and many others—employ the talents of Odd, an urban forager who scouts alleyways and abandoned rail lines for wild edibles (think black raspberries, purslane, and lily buds). Those weeds in the Portage Park alley were actually garlic mustard, a green plant that Sprout’s Dale Levitski had specifically requested. You want to eat local? “You couldn’t get closer to wild-to-plate than this,” says Odd, a standup comedian since 1997. “I dig it up and bring it to chefs that day.”

He stumbled into edible scavenging two years ago after discovering a patch of chanterelles during a hike in central Indiana. After he sold the mushrooms at the Skokie Farmers’ Market for $20 a pound, word of his ingenuity quickly spread, and chefs began to seek him out. So the nature-loving Skokie native began combing his neighborhood streets and abandoned properties in nearby suburbs and parkland. After making sure the areas are free of pesticides and toxins, he collects everything from sassafras and green garlic to gooseberries, and he’s blown out three tires on the Taurus due to potholes. Odd gets permission before hunting on private property, but the way he figures, he’s providing a valuable service. “Garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, nettles—80 percent of the stuff I pick isn’t native,” he says. “And people don’t want it.”

In warmer months, Odd goes out nearly every day. But this is Chicago, so when temperatures drop, he bulks up his selection by scouring local ethnic markets. His product list now includes more than 100 items, including Afghan green raisins, dried lemons, and exotic spices—many of them piled in gallon bags in the back seat. He’s considering hiring some help, launching a Green City Market stand, and finding a commercial space (i.e., not his car).

And Odd is one in-demand guy—he supplies a growing clientele of more than 30 Chicago-area restaurants, most of which swear by his product. Recently, Sean Sanders, the chef/owner of Browntrout, paid $60 for five pounds of freshly picked ramps, still caked with mud from the wooded Kankakee County backyard in which Odd found them. “I don’t pay for mud from anyone else,” said Sanders, handing Odd a check. As Odd walked out of Browntrout’s kitchen in his worn jeans and a scruffy T-shirt, he glanced at the check. “Not bad,” he said. “For weeds.”



3 years ago
Posted by ALS

One problem with foraging in Chicago alleys is that people walk their dogs there, rats poop there, etc. Also, how exactly does he make sure "the areas are free of pesticides and toxins"?

3 years ago
Posted by DaveOdd

In answer to the pesticides and toxins question, it's basically common sense mixed with a bit of detective work. Are there and brown, wilted, or curled plants nearby? Are there a variety of healthy and robust plants growing in the area around your target species? Is your target growing near or just outside of the fence where a home garden is? Is it growing in a vacant lot or other area that no one would think to spray pesticides or herbicides? Is it growing by a leaky dumpster filled with raw chicken and motor oil? Etc. etc. You can pretty much tell what is safe and what is not by just taking a look around and assessing all possibilities. I've been doing this stuff for years and haven't made myself sick ever.

As far as the question of dogs and rats, etc. Don't pick something if there is visible excrement around it, try to stick to "less urban" alleys, I shoot for suburban or suburban-like, relatively clean and maintained alleys around homes NOT apartments, offices or city centers. Homeowners are much more likely to keep their alleyways relatively clean, maintained, and garbage and vermin free. Once again, when in doubt, don't pick there. As far as dog pee goes, that will usually kill any leaves it directly touches leading you back to the brown/wilted thing. But in general, any wild food product you pick should be first, positively identified, and second, thoroughly washed and if all possible cooked or at least blanched.

Hope this clears up a few things.

If you have any other questions please refer to my website www.daveoddproduce.com or email me at oddproduce@hotmail.com.

3 years ago
Posted by pedalpowered

Actually, many toxins, particularly ones as concerning such as lead and PCBs, do not physically alter the appearance of plants. While it's pretty obvious when a plant has been hit by an herbicide, heavy metals and other soil-persisting toxins are much more subtle. Smart foragers will always evaluate the environment - as a forager, farming specialist, and as someone possessing a science degree, I can tell you right away that Chicago alleys are some of the most toxic places to forage. I think foragers (professional and novice) should make a small investment in getting soil tested before continuing to expose the public - and themselves.

On another note, I do hope you are foraging sustainably. Picking ramps (versus purslane, for example) requires uprooting the entire plant. Always make sure you leave some in the ground to regenerate the next year. As foraging has become more popular with people who do not understand plant conservation and life cycles, I have seen prime foraging spots quickly become barren within just a few years.

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